Barry Blundell looks at the ethics of computing as it progresses.

'It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.' Albert Einstein.

Recently I had the opportunity to present a course in ethical and professional issues to a computer science student audience.

The lecture theatre gradually filled and clearly word had gone around - a course practically impossible to fail - a required course regarded with little seriousness. Even before the lecture started, students were working on assignments and those on the back row were immersed in magazines…

Slide one: A train travelling through a winter landscape in Nazi-occupied Europe. Human freight on a voyage of unimaginable misery. Destination - Dachau.

Slide two: The Hollerith machine prototyped by Herman Hollerith in 1884 - an electromechanical data processing technology able to process punched cards at high speed (in excess of half a million cards in 24 hours). Hollerith cards could be sorted according to any criteria; racial backgrounds and individual fates being numerically coded.

Slide three: A 'Haftlingskarte' (a handwritten card containing racial information, for entry onto a punched card) and a list detailing the meaning of various numerical codes. These include: Jews - code 8, Clergy - 5, Ravensbruck Camp - 010, Escape - G7, Extermination ('Special Treatment') - 'Departure code' F6. This particular Haftlingskarte is for a person delineated as a Gypsy - code 12 - who is destined for Concentration Camp 003 - Dachau.

The students have stopped working on assignments, magazines are put to one side - the lecture has their undivided attention.

In his book, Edwin Black describes a non-benign government employing Hollerith machines to devastating effect, the fate of an individual being determined by an automaton according to the positions of a set of holes punched on a piece of card.

These machines enhanced the 'efficiency' with which the Nazis implemented their racially based selection processes. Their use (and by today's standards the Hollerith machine represents a crude and rudimentary data processing technology) provides a clear warning about the ramifications of inappropriately empowering computer-based technologies.

Since its introduction in the late 1970s, the desktop computer has proliferated into practically every area of human endeavour. Our home computers are massively more powerful than the computers that guided mankind to the Moon in the late 1960s.

Processing power, however, denotes only one facet of the modern computer and to appreciate the full potential of emerging computer-based technologies we must focus on continued advancements in two other areas: bandwidth of connectivity and support for the high speed storage and retrieval of vast amounts of data - both key facets of modern computer technologies that have underpinned the growth of the internet.

Without doubt the internet provides great opportunities, but as with all inventions it has less desirable ramifications. Students are no longer reliant on libraries - assignment content is available on the web. In a unnervingly short time, students have learned to put their faith in internet-based resources.

Seldom studying material in depth, they seek content quickly - studying becomes 'scattered'. Working under pressure, assignments may be created by massaging text that has been cut and pasted from different sites. Veracity of content is seldom checked or questioned - Wikipedia becomes a perceived source of knowledge.

As computer technologies have evolved, there has been an expectation that they will reduce tedium, improve quality of life and so on. For many this has not materialised and we find ourselves in a world where the pace of change and demands placed upon us continually escalate.

Computer systems are now commonly used to monitor human performance and thereby increase 'efficiency' (e.g. monitoring the number of items that a supermarket checkout employee scans per hour) - the pressure is on.

Our precious time is spent communicating with the digital world via poorly designed interfaces, attempting to convey our emotionally driven and often ambiguous thought processes to a machine driven entirely by logic.

Today's computer technologies support the collection of personal data on an unprecedented scale. We no longer know what data about us is being stored, who can access this data, or to what extent this data is being commercially traded. At no time in human history has this opportunity existed and - remarkably - this matter has not raised widespread public concern. 

Since September 11 2001, there has been an added impetus to the deployment and usage of computer technologies. Previously, there was the notion that networked computer based technologies would empower the individual, opening up new and unexplored opportunities - but there has been a gradual shift of emphasis.

Certainly, if wisely deployed computer technologies can offer tremendous opportunities and support individual freedoms. Conversely, they may be empowered to the detriment of the individual: the original purpose of the Hollerith machine was to support the processing of census data; its application to racial elimination came later.

There have been many defining moments in human history but the evolution of computer-based technologies has occurred gradually and its ramifications are more insidious; we have to look back over several decades to fully appreciate the scale of these changes.

In the early 1970s, computer technologies and digital systems attracted great attention and youngsters (the author included) greatly enjoyed building logic circuits and constructing digital machines.

Numerical values were entered using the traditional telephone dial, while addition, subtraction and multiplication operations were carried out in an instant - the result being displayed via sets of bulbs. These simple machines were regarded as almost magical.

Today, ever more complex computer technologies are released but cause relatively little excitement. Their development has become the norm, their manufacture impersonal and the science underpinning their operation / implementation is not accessible to the average person.

In parallel, computer technologies are being introduced on an unprecedented scale and increasingly we hear that they are needed to combat problems. Consider identity theft and illegal immigration. To what extent these issues have in fact been exacerbated by the existence of computer-based technologies is difficult to determine.

'Solutions' include the collection of biometric data and microchips inserted into passports (what data will ultimately be stored on them?). The traveller passing through the US without a biometric passport is fingerprinted.

The fingerprints are not stored in dusty basement files but are available for instantaneous retrievable via computers - can we be sure that such data will not be shared and that it will ultimately be deleted? By digitally storing fingerprints, cornea scans, and the like, are we really providing solutions - or creating new and ever more daunting problems?

Even as recently as 2000, one could not have imagined that UK citizens would soon be moving towards an identity card scenario. The benefits of this scheme are unclear but apparently the freedom enjoyed in the UK since WWII will soon be a thing of the past.

In parallel, we see the perilous IT initiative for the NHS - again apparently put in place without a clear definition of its raison d'etre by a government keen to embrace the large-scale deployment of computer technologies without any consideration of the ultimate ramifications. This is demonstrated by their enthusiasm for cornea scans - the employment of a technology even before the fundamental science is fully understood.

There is a view that the storage of personal data is only problematic for those with something to hide. But we cannot know for sure how data we supply today will be used tomorrow - goalposts shift, governments change - and not all are benign. When in 1933 the population of Germany provided their personal data for census purposes, they could have had no knowledge of ultimate consequences.

Computer-based technologies do indeed offer tremendous opportunities in support of human creativity and advancement. We should not, however, be deploying them in an ad hoc and ill-considered manner, or on the basis of shortsighted political / financial expediency.

We should not trust computer technologies to unerringly run our lives - they are simply machines that we can use for better or for worse. It is surely worth reminding ourselves that future generations will have to pay the costs for our mistakes.

The responsibility of organisations such as the BCS in guiding the continued evolution, deployment and application of computer-based technologies cannot be overstated. Their function - and indeed the function of us all - is to educate and inform not only those working in the computing community, but also politicians and the general public.

Further reading

  • IBM and the holocaust, Edwin Black
  • The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in our Midst, Stephen Talbott.
  • Ethical, Legal and Professional Issues of Computing, Blundell, B (ed), Duquenoy P, Jones S, Rahanu H and Diaper D.